The Guantanamo Camps: a Mistake Repeated

Missing from the debate over the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba are the lessons of this country’s only previous attempt to imprison foreign suspected subversives, captured overseas, in special camps beyond the reach of the courts. Then, as now, casting aside legal principles led to injustices while weakening support for the United States abroad. As the Supreme Court joins the dispute, recalling the mistakes of the past provides insight into the present.

Last time, the targets were German immigrants taken from Latin America. During World War II, the U.S. government, fearing Nazi conspiracies, seized more than 4,000 Germans living in 15 countries below the Rio Grande and interned them in Texas. Long forgotten, the internment of these men and women during a genuine national security crisis displayed an indifference to basic American values that proved ineffective and was ultimately ended by federal courts – for reasons still relevant today.

Like the prisoners held at Camp Delta in Guantanamo, the internees in Texas had no lawyers, no trials and no appeals. The FBI reported after the war that it had evidence of espionage against only eight of the 4,058 German internees. Camp commanders expecting to guard hardened saboteurs found they were holding ordinary farmers, old men and whole families. About one internee in ten was a member of the Nazi Party, and it made sense to keep Nazis under surveillance.

But like bewildered young Americans hunting the Taliban in Afghanistan, U.S. officials unfamiliar with Latin America had a hard time figuring out who was really a threat. They knowingly locked up 81 Jewish refugees, some of whom had survived German concentration camps. The only evidence against a Jewish butcher from Panama was his “many German customers.”

How did a security program net so many of the wrong people? As Supreme Court justices listen to arguments over Guantanamo, they will hear echoes of the earlier program. Several plaintiffs from Afghanistan claim they were innocents turned in by bounty hunters. During World War II, intelligence agents in Latin America paid $50 to anyone who would denounce a Nazi. Handing out cash for denunciations, then and now, draws unscrupulous volunteers.

“The embassies took all comers,” recalled former Justice Department official Raymond W. Ickes, who traveled in 1943 to 18 Latin American countries to investigate the operation. Since most U.S. intelligence agents spoke neither Spanish nor German, Ickes said, “the local people could get away with almost anything.” As a result, he insisted, most of the internees had “no more business being in detention in the United States than I had.”

Such deficiencies in investigative practice are again at work in Afghanistan, where a U.S. ally, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum of the Northern Alliance, turned over young men he called “Taliban” for cash payments, and American agents could not evaluate his claims.

Like Camp Delta, built in a Caribbean limbo, the Texas camps were deliberately placed outside the legal system through a clever trick. When Germans from Latin America arrived on U.S. soil, an immigration officer asked for their visas. Flabbergasted, the typical prisoner blurted, “What visa? I was kidnapped!” and was duly informed that, having entered the United States illegally, he was subject to detention. Indefinitely. That kind of ploy opens any incarceration program to legal challenge.

Protests from Latin American countries in the 1940s were dismissed like international protests over Guantanamo today. When post-war investigations showed most internees to be harmless, federal judges intervened to order their release. District Court Judge John C. Knox expressed outrage in 1947: “That a government can go into another country and transport a man against his will thousands of miles across the sea . . . is repulsive,” he said. “If this situation were to become generally known, it would be subject to the severest criticism.”

Since the war against terrorism is unlikely to have a discernible end, we cannot afford to wait until it is over to assess the Guantanamo episode. Surely there are dangerous men held there, especially among those seized in battle. But without trials to determine their individual guilt, or prisoner of war status for combatants, the Guantanamo scheme will suffer from the same deficiencies of injustice and ineffectiveness that doomed the World War II operation.

The sorry record of that first Guantanamo-style venture shows that violating constitutional principles in the name of wartime necessity is both unfair and impractical. It diverts attention to the wrong targets, wastes resources, injures America’s international standing by alienating allies, harms innocents and damages democratic government.

Americans and their Supreme Court should see this forgotten precedent as a cautionary tale.

Copyright 2004 History News Service.